Who’s the Real Arne Duncan?

10:46 am

So who is this Arne Duncan guy anyway? The CEO of Chicago Public Schools, tapped by Barack Obama to head the federal Department of Education, is seen as a radical corporate-controlled accountability zealot by some and a moderate centrist by others.

I see him as something of a conundrum. Consider this: Duncan signed both the Joel Klein/Al Sharpton-backed Education Equality Project statement and the “Bold Approach” statement — a critique and counter-proposal to NCLB signed by progressive educators like Pedro Noguera, Linda Darling-Hammond, and John Goodlad (among others).

So will the real Arne Duncan step forward? Does he agree with the central message of the “Bold Approach” statement? Evidence demonstrates . . . that achievement gaps based on socioeconomic status are present before children even begin formal schooling. Despite impressive academic gains registered by some schools serving disadvantaged students, there is no evidence that school improvement strategies by themselves can substantially, consistently, and sustainably close these gaps.

Or does he believe, like so many neoliberals, that “poverty is an excuse”?

Mike Klonsky holds out hope that Duncan was a tool of Chicago mayor Richard Daley and, once out from under his thumb, might produce meaningful reform. Something — albeit a small scrap — to be optimistic about RE: the fed’s role in education?

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Peter Campbell is a parent, educator, and activist, who served in a volunteer role for four years as the Missouri State Coordinator for FairTest before moving to Portland. He has taught multiple subjects and grade levels for over 20 years. He blogs at Transform Education.

filed under: National, No Child Left Behind

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13 Responses

  1. Comment from Mike Klonsky:


    Nice piece on Duncan.

    I need to clarify one point which you attribute to me. While I do hold out some hope that Duncan will make a good Sec. of Education, especially when compared with what we’ve had these past 8 years, as for producing “meaningful reform,” that’s really our (the community’s) job–us educators, students, parents and community members. While it’s interesting to speculate about this or that candidate for a cabinet post in the new administration, I suggest that it matters little compared to what we do at ground zero. I myself have been guilty of over-analyzing each of Obama’s choices and sometimes drawing unwarranted and premature big conclusions. I hope now that Duncan has been named, that the conversation will shift.

  2. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    Mike – thanks for the clarification. What do you think educators, students, parents, and community members should be focused on? What do you hope the conversation will shift to?

  3. Comment from Kenny:

    Firstly, I’d like to introduce myself. I’m Ken, currently a student-teacher in the Portland Public Schools district and a graduate student in education here in Portland,Oregon. I’ve worked with children for the past ten years in various capacities – babysitter, nanny, camp counselor, and teaching assistant – and continue to enjoy working with children of all ages.

    Duncan has been the CEO of CPS since 2001 when he replaced Paul Vallas (who went to Philadelphia schools only to privatize 40 schools along with the help of Chris Whittle and the Edison Schools, among others). While much blame has been placed on President Bush and the Republicans for No Child Left Behind, many of the original ideas came from the Progressive Policy Institute, a liberal (or neoliberal or centrist, depending on who you ask) thinktank created by the Democratic Leadership Council. School choice and innovation (market-based ideas), high-stakes testing, and teacher improvement are not the creation of the hated neoconservatives – they are firmly held neoliberal values clearly articulated since the early 1990s. Interestingly, the Republicans wanted to see the Department of Education eliminated when Bush came into office in 2000; NCLB ending up being a satisfactory compromise, and a show of solidarity for the newly-elected president.

    So where does Arne Duncan fit into all of this? First of all, Chicago Schools are more segregated now than they were in 2001 (although this is true of our nation as a country; yes, we are more segregated now than during 1954′s Brown vs. Board); multiple schools have been privatized (including the Dodge Renaissance Academy where Obama introduced Duncan – a school now controlled by the Academy for Urban School Leadership, funded by (among others) Boeing, Bank of America, Citigroup, Bill and Melinda Gates, Michael Dell, Mortola, Washington Mutual); 5 new military academies for high school students have been opened with 6 more in the plans. Duncan, like the PPI and New Democrats, love to pair the public and private sectors as a way to benefit everyone – it just doesn’t actually happen in practice. The Ariel Education Initiative, where Duncan worked before joining CPS in the late 90s and a big funder of newly opened schools, claims to practice “a hands-on model of corporate responsibility.” We’ve seen how corporate responsibility works during the past few months, I believe.

    I fear Duncan is a sign of neoliberal market policies gaining traction in our public school system. Like Klonsky, I believe the best way to improve education is through our communities and classrooms – teachers, parents, community members, and students. But we need help from the top, the funding, and proper regulations to help us on the tremendous task of educating the young. I dearly hope we keep American schools public and do not let them become institutions controlled by the corporate elite. I advise you to check out Renaissance 2010, the Progressive Policy Institute (you’ll find education at the very bottom of their list of issues), the Chicago Public Schools website, and the various players in CPS’s mess of an education system (many of the decisions in CPS come from Duncan, the Mayor (who abolished the school board years back), and a handful of Chicago’s ruling elite).

  4. Comment from Terry:

    Well said, Kenny.

    You’re absolutely correct that neoliberalism and all market-based school “reforms” –choice, accountability, charter schools– are outgrowths of centrist Democratic policies. (Conservatives would prefer outright privatization.) It’s troubling to me that Obama and Duncan seem to buy into marketplace education.

    Daley may indeed be the power behind the scenes in Chicago school politics, but Arne Duncan has been all too willing a partner in the charterization and partial privatization of Chicago Public Schools.

  5. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    Ken – thanks for chiming in. The overall trend in Chicago seems to be an increasing amount of private control over public education. The organization you mention — the Academy for Urban School Leadership — is kind of a poster child for this phenomenon. After looking at their web site, I’m impressed with their emphasis on professional development and mentoring with master teachers. But I’m left wondering about what this looks like in practice. What are the methods the master teachers are using to mentor the new teachers? Since test scores are going up at Dodge Renaissance, it’s reasonable to suspect that a lot of test prep is being done. I’d like to know more about these kinds of details.
    If this kind of “partnership” works at improving teaching and learning — and not just raising test scores — then perhaps this is a model worth reproducing.

  6. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    One clarification: a successful partnership between private and public interests would mean acknowledging that urban school systems are being asked to do too much, and that some of the tasks that schools are charged with have to be taken up by others. However, these partnerships cannot come at the expense of public control and oversight. And private interests cannot use statistical sleight of hand to show they’re holding up their end of the partnership. This, of course, is the real problem with such partnerships. But it might be worthwhile to think about this issue from a community perspective and think about how a division of labor would better serve kids. Let schools focus on their core competencies — teaching and learning.

  7. Comment from Ken:

    Peter – the AUSL’s program seems like an interesting alternative, in theory. I’d be very curious to see their true retention statistics in addition to their teaching philosophy, classroom management, and effectiveness. Their program is a 5 year commitment – 1 year of residency and 4 years working in underperforming Chicago Public Schools – and a salary of $32,000 for the first year of teaching (the Master’s program costs $11,000, but this financial incentive makes graduate school much more attainable for many). They boast a 91% retention rate after 5 years of operations, which sounds great. But after realizing that the students in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th years of operations are still required to be in the schools, 91% looks like a shaky number. They’ve put 191 new teachers into the system after 5 years, roughly 40 per year over 5 years. If only that first group of teachers are eligible for leaving the profession, they could boast of having a 91% retention rate even though 14 of their initial 40 students have already left the profession. This could mean that their first group of 40 teachers has a 66% retention rate, far below the 91% they claim. I’m very curious how they calculated their retention rate; there could be some severe cooking of the books and statistical trickery (the higher the stakes, the higher the manipulation of numbers).
    There is also a website run by a group of parents in Chicago, pureparents.org. They have done some interesting documentation of CPS, including using the legal system to gain information through the Freedom of Information Act. There are some disturbing things they found, which is definitely worth checking out. They recently released a report on the Renaissance 2010 schools (http://pureparents.org/data/fi.....-16-08.pdf).
    Of course, any information shouldn’t be taken as total fact. Even Pure Parents probably have some level of bias or manipulation, but I’m far more inclined to listen to their investigation than to swallow the scores coming from Renaissance without thinking twice.
    Speaking of manipulation of data, I wonder how Duncan (and Obama) come up with their statistics showing overall improvements in testing scores. If I’m correct, most of the new schools opened by CPS would be exempt for reporting scores for a year (or more). Opening a bunch of new schools for underperforming kids would suddenly exempt a big chunk of the lower scores from being tracked as part of the overall CPS system. Close the worst schools (taking their low scores out of the data pool) seems like it would make it look like scores went up when, in reality, all that happened was manipulation of data. Remember the “Houston Miracle” and “Texas Miracle?” I worry that America is being fed heavily manipulated test scores once again. What are your thoughts?
    It does seem like urban schools are being asked to do too much with too little. Might it be time for the country to seriously talk about the Federal government providing more funding for schools? Maybe instead of, say, escalating war in Afghanistan, pulling out all Americans from Iraq (not just “combat soldiers”), reducing the military budget, and taxing corporations (the corporations benefitting from the American education system)? Ever since the days of James Bryant Conant there have been educators pushing for more Federal dollars.

  8. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    Ken – I wrote about something I call “The Corporate Achievement Gap” over on my blog. I also worry about cooking the books when the stakes are so high (cf. “Campbell’s Law” — no relation). If we want to actually close the achievement gap, we have to do everything at the same time, which means school reform AND socioeconomic reforms that will address the root causes. Richard Rothstein’s book Class and Schools is a great resource for thinking about policy initiatives related to the latter.

  9. Comment from Ken:

    I’m fully on board with school reforms and socioeconomic reforms…but it is obviously difficult to convince the rest of the population. I remember reading the GAO report you cited and nearly falling out of my chair. I was aware some corporations do not pay taxes, but I was shocked at the number of “big” corporations not adding their share to the national pool. I know Nike (based in Beaverton, Oregon, a suburb of Portland) dodges a lot of taxes, but then pay for summer school (complete with Nike give-a-ways; free advertising, not really out of the good of their heart). Definitely not a fair practice and it would be much, much, much better for them to pay taxes to the state instead of using their non-taxed dollars as an advertising pitch aimed at children.
    Unfortunately, I’m doubtful our country is willing to seriously discuss socioeconomic reforms. I’ll definitely read Class and Schools. You’ve been education far longer than I have and I very much appreciate your thoughts. As I’m sure you know, it can be difficult looking at the cold, hard facts – and I’m surprised and saddened by my fellow educators who look at the data and just shrug as if there’s nothing we can do.

  10. Comment from Ken:

    One more thought:
    Instead of adding 100,000 more troops (like Obama has proposed), why don’t we put more people into classrooms? A single American troop costs $201,000 a year these days (up from $78,000 in 2001) – so 100,000 more troops ends up being $200,000,000.
    Peter – that $157,000,000 you cited as the necessary amount to provide each child with a $20,000 education wouldn’t be that far off if we chose to pursue it as a nation instead of searching for more wars to fight.

  11. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    I might be overly optimistic here, but now is the perfect time for the feds to pour major bucks into public education, pre-K through 16 — maybe even pre-K through 20. Part of the investment would involve sorely needed improvements in physical infrastructure, e.g., school buildings. But the other part would involve implementing some of the policy proposals that Rothstein, et al, call for. This would be a MASSIVE investment that would have a TANGIBLE return on investment and it would put tens if not hundreds of thousands of people to work in jobs that would produce meaningful, substantive transformation of public education in America.

  12. Comment from Terry:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, Ken, but I think you mean an extra $20 billion would be available for education if Obama rethought his plan for an additional 100,000 troops.

    $200 million is less than half of what Portland alone spends on schools each year, a relative drop in the bucket.

    We’re talking real money when we’re in the $20 billion dollar range.

  13. Comment from Ken:

    Terry –
    Yes, I mean $20 billion. Winds up being a hefty sum for our federal education budget (in the $60 billion range), but pale in comparison to the military budget of over $1 trillion when fully calculated.